A shabby French sulk

Flora Lewis

February 21, 1991|By Flora Lewis

PARIS — IN MUCH of Europe the war in the gulf is increasingly called "the American war," despite the coalition of 28 states against Iraq. The careful consultation that brought international consensus is frittering away amid charges that it was all a manipulation by Washington.

This is a sign that Saddam Hussein's political war is spreading beyond the Arab world to U.S. allies, including those taking part in the military war.

President Bush played into the perception the U.S. is dragging others to obey America's will by turning down a Soviet peace package. If Baghdad accepts Moscow's proposal it will sharpen European criticism of Washington.

Soon after the invasion of Kuwait, word was spread among Arabs that it was all an American plot to justify U.S. hegemony in the gulf by force and long-term domination of the world's oil supply.

The idea was that the United States deliberately provoked the crisis, setting a trap for Hussein, to guarantee American superpower status well into the 21st century, despite declining economic strength.

Now the same tale is coming from Europeans, especially in France, and from all sides.

For example, Didier Motchane, a Socialist who has taken to open criticism of Francois Mitterrand since the resignation of Motchane's close friend Jean-Pierre Chevenement as minister of defense, said, "France has accepted to help the United States restore a world domination that its economic situation no longer assured."

On the right, Jacques Chirac, the former premier, says the same thing, if in private, specifying that Bush foresaw a mighty European economic power and a mighty Asian economic power 20 years from now, both without oil. So he set out to make control of oil America's equalizer.

No doubt Bush would be pleased to hear somebody thinks his vision stretches 20 years ahead.

The communists and far-right nationalists scarcely go further in their criticism.

Part of this is the old anti-Americanism rising again, the Gaullist obsession with proving independence and, as politicians are insisting once more, making "France's difference heard."

The day news broke that Baghdad would withdraw from Kuwait, some TV commentators rushed to predict that Bush would reject a cease-fire even before they heard Hussein's unacceptable conditions.

"And, of course," one predicted, "Britain will align itself completely with the United States, as usual."

It wasn't until a French correspondent in Washington came on the air that there was a reminder that "nobody is aligning with anybody; all have accepted the same U.N. mandate."

Part of the French sulk is the result of belated and irritated recognition that Germany has eclipsed France as a European power, even if it too is showing a boisterously revived anti-American minority.

CNN has added to the sense that it's an American war, not only because American force predominates but also because an American network is the major purveyor of everybody's information, with perhaps an unwitting American slant.

Above all, it is Washington's talk of a permanent U.S. presence in the gulf and Secretary of State James Baker's suggestion of a Middle East NATO, withdrawn but not forgotten, which fed the notion of an oppressive Pax Americana lying ahead.

It is true that without America's lead, Hussein's ambitions would have succeeded with impunity.

It is also true that the United States never wanted to go it alone, and it is a perverse fantasy to say it sought the war.

The European argument that the United States will derive all the "benefits" because it supplied most of the force is even more disgusting than refusal or reluctance to contribute to the sacrifice, which serves Europe's interest.

Washington needs more of the skillful diplomacy it showed at the start of the crisis.

Europeans need to reconsider whether they want to put relations with the United States at stake to pursue internal feuds. Even their own ability to unite is damaged by demeaning attempts to shift the blame for the war as well as the burden.

Flora Lewis is senior columnist of the New York Times.

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